Viewpoint: Galiano is playing with fire

23

By CARMITA DE MENYHART

In 2006, Galiano Island experienced the biggest wildfire in modern history on the Gulf Islands. 

Sixty-one hectares of the 126-hectare Galiano Community Forest were burnt. The fire came dangerously close to hydro transmission lines, and many people were evacuated. There was even talk of evacuating the entire island.

The fire was caused by human carelessness, but there were many contributing factors: extremely hot weather, strong outflow winds and an abundance of ground fuel.

A 30-year resident of Galiano recently commented: “I was evacuated during the 2006 wildfire and still suffer PTSD as a result. I have witnessed first-hand the increasing fire hazard due to climate change. A wildfire today would travel much farther and faster than it did in 2006.”

Galiano’s Community Forest is now being proposed as the location of an affordable housing/marketplace development. Yet, this forest, which experienced a devastating wildfire in 2006, has “high-intensity wildfire conditions,” according to community forest management plans done in 2008 and 2020.

There are specific conditions that make the Community Forest a particularly dangerous site for this kind of human incursion. An arborist who lives nearby, wrote: “The Community Forest is what woodland firefighters call a ‘jackpot.’ Most of the area is thickly covered with dead cedars, grass, mature Scotch Broom, and dense third-growth conifers. There is also a heavy ground fuel load that combines with the layered brush canopy to create a volatile mix that would encourage several distinct types of fire behaviour. The grass creates a ground fire, the piles of dead cedar create durable fuel loads and the dense conifers can create crown fires, which are fast moving and extremely dangerous.

“Besides the fire danger rating, two other major factors are slope and wind. The Community Forest is on a substantial slope. Making the matter worse is that sunny and hot weather in this micro-climate is often associated with outflow winds, which are generally from the northeast and almost directly uphill. Dense vegetation, slope, and confluent wind conditions create the perfect conditions for extreme fire behaviour. Building numerous housing units in the middle of this ‘jackpot’ would add an undue amount of risk to an already tenuous situation.”

Up to 48 future tenants could be in danger, this project could go up in flames, adjacent properties could be destroyed, and great ecological damage could be done.

People living close to the Community Forest have sent letters to various agencies warning of the fire risk and asking for a wildfire hazard assessment by a qualified forester. It is the responsibility of the Galiano Island Local Trust Committee to ask for an assessment, but no decision has yet been made.

Why aren’t the elected officials responsible for giving approval striving to obtain the most accurate data? Why do they appear to be uninterested in knowing the wildfire risk in the Community Forest?

As I look out my window at Galiano’s browning fir trees and crackling dry undergrowth, I hope that common sense will prevail.

23 Comments
  1. Jacinthe Eastick says

    Building any kind of housing in the middle of a heritage forest does not sound wise. If housing is proposed, why not propose to build it, at least, on the edge of the heritage forest or, better still, somewhere else altogether. Right? Common sense should not be compromised in decision-making, surely!

    1. Colleen Doty says

      The housing site is not in the “middle” of the community forest, but on the edge of the forest on a publicly dedicated road and emergency route, a former logging road when the area was logged 12 times over the last several decades.
      The immediate neighbours who find the area quite desirable would certainly agree with you that it should be built elsewhere.

  2. Jennifer Margison says

    Friends staying in our house were evacuated during the 2006 Galiano fire. I completely concur with what has been expressed in this article. Further human incursion into such an already uniquely dangerous landscape with the brutal evidence of climate change as we are experiencing this summer represents an unacceptable level of risk to a publicly funded project, its future residents, to the adjacent neighbourhood and possibly to the entire island. This location, at this point with one completely undeveloped road in and out of the Community Forest and 1/2 km to the proposed housing site which is 4-7 km from any services is completely unsuitable. The off-site infrastructure costs alone will be extraordinarily high and it is unclear who will pay for the road. We would all pay for a wildfire however.

    1. John Parfitt says

      It sounds like the neighbours have not been doing any FireSmart volunteer work removing the dangerous level of fuel in the heritage forest. Perhaps a new pool of 48 more people will enable the neighbourhood to get back on track.

      1. Sandy Martin says

        Well said, John!! Very good point!!

      2. Christelle says

        Interestingly, only a handful of people have been showing up to very recent efforts by the Galiano Club to remove scotch broom from the Heritage Forest… Never has there been so much interest in FireSmarting the area than since the affordable housing proposal.

  3. Sarah Stang says

    Well good thing we’ve just hired a FireSmart team – I’m sure you’ve all already contacted them for help. And of course it would be irresponsible to operate a STVR in such a “dangerous landscape” especially when an arborist nearby is alerting us to the risk.

    Perhaps clearing the part of that forest designated for an affordable housing complex would actually help mitigate the fire risk. Win-win!

  4. Colleen Doty says

    The fire risk – as described by de Menyhart – isn’t too much for the strata subdivision that borders the property of the proposed affordable housing project. I guess private property owners that are looking to build/or have already built next to the proposed affordable housing development are held to a different standard from the one de Menyhart’s opinion piece is trying to promote for renters. I’m sure the Galiano Club would appreciate seeing some of these concerned neighbours come out to a broom pull once in a while to help mitigate fire risk if they’re so concerned. The GIGARHS site would make the neighbourhood safer because we are following FireSmart principles and will have ample water storage. That said, everywhere is a fire risk, not just 1663 Georgia View Road.

  5. George Harris says

    Yes…tragic. The immediate neighbours to this housing project (the author and a commenter) made the decision to develop 25 meters from this site. AFTER THE FIRE! And even more alarming, little has been done in their neighbourhood to remove forest litter. The good news is the CRD, the fire department, the broader community all know the new affordable housing site will actually be FireSmart and will have water on site to help fight any fires that occur in the neighbourhood. As is often the case, people move to a community with full understanding that the land adjacent is set aside for a specific use and then come up with many, many arguments that this should not happen. I am waiting for a snowy owl sighting.

  6. Caitlin Hertzman says

    So the 12 units of more dense housing with water storage and FireSmart procedures are more at risk than the sprawling air-bnb-riddled lots with no water storage or FireSmart procedures where there aren’t as many folks keeping an eye out… Got it.

    Sounds like someone thinks people with less money are more careless? Hard to see this as anything other than classist.

  7. Christian Nally says

    I was a firefighter for almost ten years, and live between the author and the proposed development. In my time as a firefighter, I helped put out more fires in Sticks Allison area itself, but they were easier to put out because of the maintained roads.

    I was on the 2006 fire.

    The safest island from the point of view of fire safety would be one that was 100% developed subdivisions.

    I fail to see how increasing the amount of road access to an area increases the risk of runaway fires. More likely, we’d be able to get to parts of that same fire faster next time.

    As far as the risk of actual runaway fires go, the author already has the privilege of being at exactly the risk they supposedly fear. The author lives closer to the unmanaged forest to the southwest of them, where the best plan there would be better developed roads.

    p.s. I’m cordially acquainted with the author. My informed opinions are expressed here to dig into the actual logic of the situation, and are not personal. I believe that the reasoning being used in this article is not honest reasoning, but instead is grasping at straws because of other reasons for being opposed to this higher density affordable housing project, but I haven’t had a chance to speak with the author directly.

  8. Colleen Doty says

    I’m sure that the author and “those living close to the Community Forest” would be very pleased with the Local Trust Committee if they requested the non-profit affordable housing society (composed entirely of volunteers) to undertake a wildfire hazard assessment, just like they wanted the LTC to get GIGARHS to do a wildlife assessment to study the sooty grouse, and were very pleased with the greywater cycling assessment request (which was later rescinded by our LTC). Of course, if it came to be that GIGARHS had to do a wildfire hazard assessment, the NIMBY’s would then criticize the experts we hired as being biased and paid guns. Just like they have been calling into question for months the findings of our hydrogeological expert and the Province’s independent regional hydrogeologist who found sufficient water for the development.

  9. Elizabeth Nickson says

    This is nonsense because the people living in those conditions would automatically improve their environment, cleaning up the underbrush, making sure that they were not going to go up in flames. Honestly, do you think people are meat suits with no intelligence? I know of course that so-called modern people don’t believe in the soul, but still, people can think.

    1. Jennifer Margison says

      Thank you Erin Doyle for injecting reason and common sense into this discussion. Why indeed are there such strong objections to a study of the wildfire risk in the area? The previous Galiano Community Wildfire Protection Plan was done in 2009 – 3 years after the frightening 2006 fire in the Community Forest. 61 ha of the upper community forest burned, the only reason that area could have been identified in 2009 as low to moderate risk. It is a bit difficult to decipher the maps in this report but it appears that the lower section of the forest, still heavily treed and where this housing development is proposed to go, is identified as moderate to high “Ignition Risk”. And that was 12 years ago. Nothing has occurred to reduce this risk; only to increase it.

      Besides that, as de Menyhart say in her article, the Galiano Club’s own Community Forest Management Plan – http://galianoclub.org/programs/parks/community-forest/ – in both 2008 and more recently in 2020 (page 29) states that there is a “high risk of fire” and fuel loads are “symptomatic of high intensity wildfire conditions”. So is the Housing Society disputing the assessment of the author of the Management Plan report, a biologist that they have in fact used and have expressed confidence in for another report? It is also surprising to me that the Galiano Club, owners of this land, would want to increase this clearly identified wildfire hazard risk by putting people in housing here. The wildfire hazard information is there, in their own report. Where is any duty of care being exercised? So yes, we are reasonably asking for an independent current assessment of the wildfire risk in order to protect everyone.

      And why is there such a denial among this project’s proponents, and to date, the Local Trust Committee, who is considering the rezoning application, of the impact of climate change, namely impact on forests, fire risk and freshwater. Removing 2 ha and more of endangered costal Douglas-fir ecosystem in a aquifer recharge area, possibly impacting the adjacent forest, increasing human incursion into a “high intensity wildfire risk” area and adding 50-60 car trips a day (IT planner’s estimate) to and from this proposed site far from services is not part of the solution for any of us – those already housed and those needing housing. There are many “inconvenient truths” that we are all going to have to face as outlined in the stark UN climate change report just released.

      As a correction to Ms Doty’s comment about the protective covenant on this land, it did not give the Galiano Club express rights to subdivide this land for affordable housing. It says “1% of the area of F1 lands being rezoned to RR and FH (Heritage Forest, now called Community Forest) May, if deemed suitable by the Local Trust Committee instead be rezoned to Community Facility to permit affordable housing, including housing for senior citizens”. The permitted density for Community Facilities (LUB #127) was 2 dwellings per ha, not 6 as is being proposed in the rezoning application. Secondly, the covenant does not allow for market housing. Yet 1/3 of this development is proposed as market housing. Thirdly, the covenant holders are being asked to amend the covenant in order to provide more land than 1% of the Community Forest as specified in the covenant. .

      1. Colleen Doty says

        I stand by everything I’ve written. The vociferous opponents to the affordable housing project in their backyards will continue to cherry pick the information they wish to inflate and contort, and continue to try to undermine our project. Those interested in delving into the file can apprise themselves of the documentation on the public record.

  10. Lori Seay-Potter says

    Local fire departments who are qualified to assess risk are weighing in on the project as part of the rezoning process. These classist dog whistles are proof that a tiny minority of new and privileged residents will do or stay anything to stimy the project. It won’t work. The science, data and existing agreements will guide the process. The IT and other folks are too smart to be bullied out of doing the only right thing. People will ask–what did you do during Covid? Fighting tooth and nail against a well constructed AH proposal is a shameful legacy.

  11. Jennifer Margison says

    I find it so curious how the most vocal proponents of affordable housing development on the Gulf Islands (a worthy initiative that I would like to support) such as some of those commenting here, consistently engage in presenting false information, name calling and bullying behavior towards anyone with a divergent point of view, and how reasonable environmental concerns are minimized or completely rejected as having any legitimacy. These same tactics will be very familiar to anyone following politics in the US. To correct some of the most obvious falsehoods in these comments, we bought and built on our property, an already logged off acreage BEFORE the 2006 fire, we were ALWAYS concerned about the fire load in the Community Forest and with other neighbours have probably spent more time clearing broom on that land adjacent to us than any of these commentators have. And I will be proud to say that I spent my time during Covid researching the issues and trying to bring reason and common sense, environmental precautions and science to the discussion.

  12. Erin Doyle says

    Most of the commenters are saying incorrect facts. The bulk of the fuel load is in the Community Forest itself, an area that has been neglected for 15 years under the management of the local community club, not in the neighboring areas. The annual broompulling is a small drop in a very large bucket of club responsibilities.
    Yes, the Community Forest should have firesmart procedures done on all 126 hectares but it’s also clear that an additional 32 (or more) people living there can only increase the fire risk, irregardless of anyone’s economic status. The issue is about density of population in a highly fueled area, not about class or differing standards or any of the other perceived factors some of the commenters have mentioned. Comparing this proposed housing project to the nearby b&bs is meaningless – any comparison needs to be between this site and other less heavily-fueled sites. (And, yes, we also need less b&bs and tourism in this fragile environment.)
    De Menyhart is asking for a scientific study to evaluate the risk. Getting the study done will not delay the housing project (if it does get approved by IT) since funding through BC Housing’s periodic programs will apparently not be available for many months. Why are so many people objecting to a study that only provides information and aids in decision-making? If I rent a unit in this proposed development, I’ll be very glad that someone took the trouble to do a wildfire hazard assessment and to act on the recommendations.

    1. Colleen Doty says

      The entire island — and the Province of B.C. for that matter — is a fire hazard, a shared responsibility to act prudently. The Community Wildfire Protection Plan found the Community Forest area to be of low to moderate risk, compared to other areas on island. The GIGARHS’ housing development would be on a 2-hectare/4.94 acre lot out of the entire Community Forest. No one questioned the fire-load when the adjacent subdivision plan was approved, where many objectors to this development are living. Furthermore, the rezoning that created the adjacent subdivision and resulted in a portion (2 hectares) of the Community Forest lands being designated for affordable housing as a possible use gave express rights to the Galiano Club, via covenants on title, to subdivide the land for purposes of affordable housing, subject to rezoning.

      As for the surrounding fire risk, whether from the adjacent subdivision, from other single family properties, from nearby forest lots, from the CRD community parks, or from the Community Forest, the housing society is not responsible for the management of property held by other owners.
      Rezoning is about appropriate land use of a specific proposal, not comparative study of hypothetical possibilities or locations where a development might go.
      Just like community members share a responsibility to mitigate fire risk, many of us believe we have a moral responsibility to ensure community members have access to secure housing.

  13. Tyson Cornfield says

    I’m always distrustful of unnamed sources. Who is the local arborist? There’s only like 4 of us over here.

    1. Erin Doyle says

      The arborist’s letter is public on the Islands Trust website in the application section. Read this section and you will learn lots.

  14. Jennifer Margison says

    Tyson Cornfield – this important letter is on Page 31 of the Jan-Feb 2021 Correspondence under Current Applications – GIGARHS. The author, besides being an arborist, is an experienced woodland firefighter and a journeyman powerline technician. His assessment of the wildfire risk in the Community Forest should matter.

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